The sounds of Babyn Yar

Holocaust Memorial Center unveils outdoor memorials that present a haunting combination of audio and visual elements

Mirror Field Memorial at Babyn Yar (photo credit: DMITRIY STOIKOV)
Mirror Field Memorial at Babyn Yar
(photo credit: DMITRIY STOIKOV)
“We have a duty to tell the truth as it is,” says Ilya Khrzanovskiy, artistic director of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. “However, hard facts in the form of documentary evidence are just one way to tell a story. It is important to us that visitors to the museum have an emotional experience, as well as a rational one. It is this emotive connection that can really make an impact and ensure that historical lessons are learned.” Though the museum will not open until 2026, it has begun to offer educational programs and conduct historical research. On September 29, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center unveiled three outdoor memorials that delivered a poignant and moving message on the 79th anniversary of the massacre of 33,771 Jews at the hands of the Nazis at Babyn Yar, a ravine near Kyiv.
The three installations present a haunting combination of audio and visual elements that not only evoke the events of September 29-30, 1941, but the sounds and routines of the victims’ pre-war lives as well. The memorial’s audio elements were conceived and designed by noted Ukrainian sound designer Maksym Demydenko, who has worked extensively in Ukrainian cinema and on large-scale international projects.
The memorials, located near the site where the murders were committed, consist of the Menorah Monument Walk Audio Installation, a 300 meter (approximately 1,000 foot) path from the main road to the Menorah monument; the Mirror Field, a disc 40 meters (130 feet) in diameter, with 10 columns, each six meters (20 feet) high and the Monoculars, statues of solid red Ukrainian granite, approximately two meters (six-and-a-half feet) in height, with a form that is reminiscent both of a human body and a gravestone.
The path from the main road to the Menorah monument has 32 pillars, each containing an audio speaker with independent audio channels. As visitors walk along the path, the names of 19,000 victims of the tragedy, compiled by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center and recorded by people of different gender and ages, will be played through the speakers, emphasizing both the collective nature of the tragedy and the tragedy of each individual human life that was lost. The direction and pace of each visitor shapes the individual experience, as walking past each speaker creates a unique soundscape.
As visitors approach the Menorah, the reading of the victims’ names is joined with voices reading prayers, gradually increasing in volume, followed by the chanting of “El Malei Rachamim,” a prayer for the souls of the departed. The walk ends with the audio recording of the ancient song, “Rozo D’Shabbos” (“The Mystery of Sabbath”), sung in the 1920s by Cantor Pierre Pinchik, who was born in the village of Zhivotov in the Vinnytsia region, and who studied at the Kyiv Conservatory.
Demydenko, who has worked with Ilya Khrzanovskiy previously, says that he was determined to create recordings of the names of the victims, once he learned of the museum’s plans to make a listing of the names. “I thought that it would be great if those names could be read, to find a way to read the names of the innocent victims of that place, within this huge, almost abandoned territory.” The second memorial installation is the “Mirror Field,” a reflective stainless-steel disk, designed by Ilya Khrzanovskiy and Denis Shibanov, located outside the former Jewish cemetery. The disk contains ten columns representing the mystical Kabbalistic sign of the Sefirot, by which God, it is said, reveals himself and controls the world. The columns are pockmarked with over 100,000 bullet holes, shot with bullets matching the size of those used during the Babyn Yar massacre, using real weapons in partnership with Ukrainian military forces. The tops of the columns have been blown up. By night, light shines out through the holes, creating a mirage effect.
Underneath the disk, Demydenko built an organ from plastic drainage pipes, with speakers tuned to different frequencies. Using the Hebrew ‘Gematria’ system, which assigns a numerical value to each Hebrew letter, he converted the names of the victims into a number and then converted it into an acoustic sound value. In collaboration with Israeli sound designer Daniel Meir, Demydenko created a “Names Synthesizer” that generates musical composition using name-based frequencies.
“A miraculous piece of music is constantly emanating from the Mirror Temple in tribute to the memory of the victims of Babyn Yar,” says Demydenko. “It is a very quiet and beautiful base, which seems to be coming from everywhere.”
Soon, the visitor hears another layer of sound playing above the computer-generated musical frequencies. It is a “time machine” of sorts, playing a collection of archival materials of everyday sounds and songs of pre-war Kyiv, including Yiddish songs recorded in Ukraine in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The music fades in and out and mixes with ambient archival sounds to create a peaceful domestic atmosphere, which changes from rural, pastoral sounds to more urban tones until the sound of distant approaching trains disrupts it. Demydenko explains that the sounds of the trains recall the victims’ expectations that the Nazis were going to deport them on trains rather than murder them outside the city. “It gives a feeling of missed expectations,” he says.
The music then resumes with a long acoustic reverberation and different voices, in mourning for the victims of Babyn Yar. Memorial folk songs from Jewish, Christian, Orthodox, Catholic, Greek Catholic, Ukrainian and Gypsy sources play from different pillars, mixed with more contemporary compositions, such as Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish. Demydenko explains that the songs from different religions and ethnic groups will enable the memorial to speak to people of all faiths and backgrounds.
The third element of the Babyn Yar memorial is the Monocular, which consists of red Ukrainian granite statues. A small square made of mirrored stainless steel is located in the center of each figure, with a lens in the middle. Looking inside, images and film of victims of the Babyn Yar tragedy can be seen, and accompanying audio content can be heard.
Photographs and film are taken from footage of the tragedy, which was recorded by Nazi military photographer Johannes Hahle in early October 1941. Historians have identified the exact locations where these 15 photographs were taken, precisely where the granite statues stand. Nearby plaques give a short description of the massacre.
When asked about the meaning of the exhibit, Demydenko pauses for a few moments, and says, “I think that is important to feel that this is not just history. It has names and personalities, it happened recently, and it is very linked to where we live. We are in a very fragile world which is not stable. There is a power that influences the world, but we have to be aware and awake.” Ilya Khrzanovskiy adds, “The museum at Babyn Yar is perhaps the last memorial center to be built exactly where the tragedy took place. This is the first time that the Holocaust of the Jews of Ukraine in particular, and of Eastern Europe in general, will be given its rightful place in history.” 
This article was written in cooperation with the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center